Religion and Democracy
When we say we believe in democracy, what exactly are we saying? Is "democracy" a specific list of conditions, or is it more like a feeling? Is the faith that we place in democracy a religious faith?
by Schuyler Lake
The question of whether al-Sistani's idea for democracy in Iraq is any better than the U.S. coalition proposal, begs a deeper question -- what do we mean when we speak of democracy? Democracy is an ancient ideal of wide appeal which has become plastic and ambiguous. Today it is associated with a variety of schemes and ambitions which have little or nothing to do with any specific meaning of the term. I love democracy, you love democracy, Pat Buchanan loves democracy, and I wouldn't be surprised if Robert Mugabe loves democracy too.
The 18th and 19th centuries were a heyday for democracy. In those times, democracy really earned and deserved its capital D. But even then it was badly mixed up with other ideals like Liberty, Equality, Fraternity, and Prosperity. Then came the horribly bloody, ruinously divisive 20th century, which challenged the validity of all political idealism, democracy included. If one assumes that America came out of WWII morally unscathed, one is sadly mistaken, and has not bothered to heed post-war art. But thanks to our mass media (and a special thanks to Walt Disney), many, if not most Americans now equate democracy with material comfort, security, and even luxury. As if the one were a corollary of the other.
So we have a problem. The problem is not that some interpretation of democracy won't prove completely valid and practicable, nor that the human longing for true community implicit in the democratic ideal is somehow outmoded, but rather that the word "democracy" itself has been damaged and debased beyond repair. Much as the word "god" has been.
Fred Foldvary's proposals for a "cellular democracy" in Iraq are brilliant, absolutely brilliant -- and might be very effective, were they ever to be implemented. However the chances of that happening are exactly nil. Those who hold power in Iraq (as elsewhere), are jealous of their power. Given the immediacy and the extent of the threats confronting them, both immanent and percieved, they can hardly be blamed for their possessiveness. Fear is their motivating power, ahead of idealism. Meanwhile, George Bush and his corporate bullies are doing all they can to increase the fear factor, rather than diminish it. Anyone who still thinks that Bush's prime concern is for democracy and freedom needs a lot of strong coffee. In this environment, the ideal of "democracy" becomes not only irrelevant, but positively misleading.
As the ideal of "communism" has also become irrelevant, for the world at large. For better or for worse, and for whatever reason, the days of the Internationale are long gone. We can clearly see the three great Idealisms of the 20th century -- Communism, Fascism, and Democracy, in ruins about our feet. Apparently what Western thinkers are doing in response to this dilemma, is abandoning the field to corporate hegemony, and unbridled opportunism. There are disturbing parallells to the Vandals sacking Rome. The executive officers of Halliburton for instance laugh -- I mean literally laugh -- at the Green Party.
Liberal humanists in general, by adhering to a long-lost, ill-defined, and much-disputed ideal of "democracy", as if it were their guiding light, have failed to define their actual objectives... objectives which, I contend, are religious in nature rather than political.
What the Progress Report is doing (and doing very well) and what myriad other progressive sites are doing, more or less well, is essentially religious, rather than political in nature. The very idea of open debate and freedom of individual expression is a religious ideal... albeit an open-ended and anti-authoritarian one. I don't deny that democracy, as a system (or rather various systems) of collecting and tabulating votes, is related to this ideal -- but it is not essential to it.
Communism too, was a religious movement, though its god was man-made rather than pre-existing from above. What made Communism religious is the fact that people really believed in it. Lots of people, not just a few. Millions. That's what made it powerful -- the fact that so many people were able to believe in it. It was not the inherent logicalness of Marxism that made it powerful and dangerous, but rather the fact that it was able to harness the hopes of so many humans. It made sense. Communism might indeed have taken over the world, had it not made the essential and disastrous mistake of denying God. But apparently, Communists had no idea that their advocacy for the disadvantaged had anything to do with God. They were so accustomed to fighting the Church/State, so long bitterly opposed to a particular God, and so myopic as to believe that they had invented the idea. Or maybe in many cases, they knew the truth but chose to remain silent.
The remnants of the ideals of democracy today will be able to do no such thing. Neither will the bogus promises of global corporatization, as it rapes the planet for selective benefit, and consigns millions to misery, without recourse to any ideology whatsoever, save that of a victor enjoying its spoils. Innumerable devout Muslims see this world differently -- it's no wonder that they do, and I for one am very glad that they do. They still believe that God (as they percieve Him/Her/It?) has a central place in daily affairs, which is inseparable from politics. Who's to say that they are wrong, and that the Cheney/Wolfowitz cabal is right? Only a self-serving fool like Bush, or his unthinking "Christian" supporters would presume to make such a judgement, denying Muslims the right to interpret God as they see fit. The fact is, that most neo-religious movements the world over are also neo-fascist. And that all of them implicitly advocate, or at least condone war.
In conclusion: that religion is essential to human community, whether that religion be organized and strictly defined, or not. Also, that "democracy", no matter how one might define it, is insufficient as a religious ideology for liberal humanism. Even more, it is positively misleading.
Schuyler Lake lives in New Mexico, and has spent much time in Europe and Canada. He works as a painter of houses and "very odd and almost completely unsaleable canvases." Lake observes that patriotism and a sense of global brotherhood are not at all incompatible.
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